Friday, May 30, 2008

High Level Conference on World Food Security

On the global scene, a major conference is coming up June 3-5 in Rome, exploring global food security, especially as it relates to climate change and bioenergy.

Today I got a press release on a statement signed by hundreds of heads of faith group and NGOs laying out their priorities. Or should I say our priorities, since Katharine our presiding bishop is one of the signers.

One of the concerns in the accompanying media advisory is that stakeholders in those sectors, and grassroots agricultural leaders and efforts generally, have not been heard adequately in the process leading up to this conference.

You can read the letter here:

It'll be interesting to see to what extent commercial US media follow this story. I'll be sure to post links here to any news from Episcopal media or RNS.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Finally a report on the farm bill

and why haven't I found this site before?

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis offers this three page summary of what was and was not done.

Finally a three pager that isn't just from the perspective of grapes or cows or a chemical company, but gives a comprehensive look at what finally happened, albeit with a left leaning slant.

Many media outlets overlooked the modest but progressive provisions in the farm bill which will reward conservation efforts, encourage organic farming, and prefer local sourcing of food in some government subsidized feeding programs - all good steps.

Also ethanol incentives begin to move away from corn and toward other native cellulosic plants.

But here's the sobering fact offered as context for this report: Cargill's earnings in April 2008 were up 86% over the same period a year ago - a trend that has been going on for a decade.

If we complain when oil companies make big profits while gasoline prices rise, where's the outrage over this statistic when food prices are skyrocketing?

the global food scene - some updates

I've been doing some research for a story for Episcopal media on the global food crisis. Since I can't get a response from our Washington Office, and the sustainability staff person in the Anglican office at the UN does not answer emails or return calls, I've been going back to some of the secular places I've found helpful in the past.

I am still a fan of Food Aid or Food Sovreignty (see links to the right) as the best treatment of the underlying problems. There is an update on the Oakland Institute site now. Interestingly, they label the current crisis the food price crisis - putting an emphasis on the economic dimensions of the problem. They make the case that free trade has caused much of the current crisis - and yet the IMF and the US are proposing more of the same as a solution. Hmmm.

Check out the media links on the right of the Oakland Institute site

If you do podcasts (or just like listening on your computer when Comcast fails you and you can't get the ball game on the radio after dark which is my present condition) the KPFA interview with Anuradha Mittal of the OI is a pretty good summary. There's also a reminder to check out Kootenay Co-op Radio's Deconstructing Dinner podcasts.

Monday, May 26, 2008

further thoughts of food and stories

A few weeks ago I finished reading Kitchen Literacy. The book does provide a sweeping story of how our stories about our food have changed. Most helpful for me was understanding that this is not just a post WWII phenomenon, but happened gradually as the U.S. population grew and we became more urban.

Stories and food seem to go together. The stories of rural and town folk - even city folk when agricultural areas, not suburbs, ringed them - used to be how and where the food was produced, and by whom. Even in my boomer childhood, in a small town with a summer population on its way to becoming a bedroom community, we had these food stories. "Uncle" Phil had cows and beef critters, as did the farm two properties from our house (now a golf course). We bought two piglets in the spring and raised them for fall slaughter. I had hens for the eggs (and stew pot). My dad had a vegetable garden and my grandmother had strawberry beds. My grandfather always grew something he hadn't before in his garden - my lasting impression is seeing Brussels sprouts on the stalk for the first time. We all went blueberrying and clamming, and got our cranberries from the growers. (Cranberries now are mostly harvested by flooding the bogs, which makes them most suitable for processing, and not, very much, for storage. If you want to store cranberries through the winter, you harvest them dry, with a scoop with tines, and pack them dry in crates - not plastic. ) My dad went deer hunting, and taught himself to butcher by studying pictures of cuts of beef and lamb in cook books. Usually around my birthday we would make a trip to visit relatives in western Massachusetts, near where my dad's family had settled in the late nineteenth century. We'd visit the peach orchards in the Connecticut River valley and bring bushels home for preserving, and make pigs of ourselves on the bounty of the small truck farm that my dad's cousin ran.

All of this I may elaborate some day in my food autobiography.

But those food stories got supplanted for us and others over time. In the early boomer time of my youth, freezing was replacing canning both commercially and at home. The stories were as often of brand names (was Betty Crocker real once?) as of blueberrying trips. The guy who sold us the piglets got too old to carry on and none of his children were interested; homemade sausage patties were replaced by the brand du jour. Using King Arthur flour ties me to the Saturdays in the 50s helping my grandmother bake as much as the memory of helping her to pick strawberries to sell at her roadside stand.

Other narratives grew up - like the weekly narrative of what was on sale at the supermarket, sure to be featured in this week's menus. And we watched our first cooking shows, the Julia narrative.

Now as I consider my fellow eaters and shoppers, I see even more sophisticated stories that distance us from our food. There are still stories of brand names - but they are usually built on the clever vignettes of advertising campaigns, not the adjudged quality of the product. We get to know the actors who "make" Post cereals, or the family who eats Thomas' English Muffins, or the Kashee eating bungee jumpers. Who even thinks about where the grains come from? And there are the green washing campaigns, too. We want to believe the idyllic labels on Target's organic food line, and the grazing cows on our dairy products. And, of course, the narratives of quick and easy.

The other stories we tell ourselves about our food these days are the nutrient stories. It's good for you - antioxidants, calcium, contains ginkgo, pomegranate, blueberry extract. And just what are goji berries? where do they come from? At my local market the crocks of staple items contain full nutritional labeling, and sometimes organic certification, but nary a word about where the crops are grown or processed.

It's a luxury to have the kind of conversation I did yesterday, with the person who sources and blends the mix of leaf lettuce seeds from which I am growing a very satisfying crop.

But before I manage to outline my entire food autobiography, I want to attempt to say what I set out to: food and stories seem to go together - meal and narrative. At their best, there is a sacramental quality to meal and narrative, that points us to the meal and stories we share around our holy tables.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Farm Bill Finale

With all the sites for info on the Farm Bill, you'd think one would have gotten up a quick update on what was actually passed (which the President has vetoed, but Congress has the votes to over ride).

Some lobbying groups have published what's in it for them, but it's a little like the blind men and the elephant trying to get a picture of the whole.

It's certainly safe to say that it didn't go far enough to reform subsidies, especially given the impact of subsidies on agriculture in countries not rich enough to have them. Some crops were added and there is more support for fruit and veg, not a bad thing if you are going to have subsidies at all. About 10% of the cost of the bill is for crop subsidies.

I think most of us who had things to say about US farm policy early in 2007 realized we weren't going to win this time - but there is progress because conversation about the farm bill seemed much more widespread this time. Or is that just the people with whom I hang out with?

To those who didn't want this bill passed, I have to say that I am not sure programs for the hungry and the malnourished could go much longer without the enactment of some legislation. The widening gap between rich and poor in this country and rising food prices are combining to increase pressure on domestic food aid programs at a time when stocks in food banks, etc., are down. It's not a pretty picture. 2/3 of the cost of this bill is for food stamps, emergency food aid, and nutrition programs.

Some other things: there were incentives for biofuels. Apparently some were of the kind we like to see - conversion of waste to energy sources. Some most clearly were not - crops for fuel instead of crops for food.

I'll be trying to find out more over the next few weeks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Will rising prices mean less food waste?

That's the question posed at the end of this article on wasting food in America.

We've all heard the statistics, I'm sure, and know it's an appalling situation. And anyone who shares a dumpster with neighboring apartments or condominiums certainly knows the score.

We have small yards here where I live, but no green or organic waste dumpster. I don't eat meat, and I do compost, so I don't have much of that childhood guilt about the starving people in other countries. (The country that comes to mind first when you fill in the blank of "Save the starving -----" is probably a clue as to when you were in grade school.) But one look at what others throw out is always a great reality check. It's appalling. And sometimes the food looks almost as good as that in the Times article.

Then when you think about how foodcentric life is around here, the potential waste is astounding.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is there a Mark Bittman fan club?

If not, perhaps I could start one.

Here's a 20 minute video of a talk he gave last December and which he linked to his blog today.

I take exception to his minimizing (the minimalist!) the chance of eating locally, but the central point here - eat less meat and more plants - is well and entertainingly made.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What North American food nation do you live in?

I keep forgetting to post this link:

A wonderful map accompanying a review of a book, “Renewing America's Food Traditions” by Gary Paul Nabhan, about disappearing foods.

I feel a little squirrely knowing I live in acorn nation, but I feel as though I live where acorn nation meets salmon nation. I also get a sense of reality about our diocese when I note that we also include part of pine nut nation.

The Greendex is pretty interesting

Here's another footprint-type calculator where you can compare yourself to our national average (not good) and to ratings of other countries.

I answered the questions, and found it gave a more nuanced picture than other calculators I have used. Usually I am over the top because I live alone and drive a lot for work/ministry purposes. Here, work miles are exempted, and eating and recycling habits count. But when I compared myself to the descriptions of countries with average scores similar to mine, the similar scores come from very different practices. Also, I noticed there were comments on water use for the various countries, but I didn't find the questions in the survey for individuals.

What makes me saddest about things like this is that they are based on the assumption that everyone is defined by their consumption habits. Of course, in one sense we are - but aren't some of the habits ones of producing and sustaining?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Could we feed ourselves?

I've been searching for and working over some statistics with the question in mind: could we feed ourselves here in Sonoma County if we had to. This is part of some work with our ad hoc Food Systems Group, trying to get an accurate picture of where we are in resiliency, sustainability, worker justice, availability of nutritious foods - all those parameters of the food system.

It's not a pretty picture. In a few words - we might have plenty of dairy products and chicken and wine - but we'd suffer for grains and vegetables. And frankly, I'm not sure about where the feed for the chickens comes from. We have quite a bit of range land, and grow some feed grains, etc. - but I am not sure it is enough to support the poultry and grazing animals we have.

The black box, as far as getting a picture goes, is what happens in back yards and community gardens - and what might happen.

I suspect that we have have a fair amount of fruit in residential backyards: apples and lemons probably lead the pack, some pears and other citrus, persimmons and figs. This is the home of the Santa Rosa plum, and some California Italians still grow the plums that are used for prunes - though they have dropped off the radar as a cash crop. I'm also aware of kumquats and quinces - but those may be a bit fringy. And there are backyard berries - cultivated of various sorts - as well as the himalayan wild (invasive) blackberries everywhere.

If my trip to Imwalle's on Monday was any indication, more people are doing backyard gardening. There were a number of folks puzzling over the bedding plants. How many tomatoes and summer squash plants do I need?

And I'm still spotting vacant lots that could be turned into gardens, and wondering why there is no community garden as part of the plan for the vast sports fields being developed in northwest Santa Rosa, and wondering why there are so many lawns.

Today's NY Times contains an article on urban farming, on the turning of small plots into vegetable gardens, and of people supplementing their income and improving neighborhood access to fresh produce by taking back the vacant lots.

In fact, this article answered one of my questions. I was wondering why we are growing so many grapes here, when apparently small scale organic vegetable farming is more lucrative. In 2006 we grew about the same acreage of Sangiovese grapes and vegetables - just under 300 acres - but the market value of the vegetables was three times the value of the grapes! I couldn't believe this - until I read that a half-acre farm in Philadelphia "generated $67,000 from high-value crops like lettuces, carrots and radishes." Radishes?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Why garden?

Michael Pollan's essay, "Why Bother?"

underscores the importance, real and symbolic, or personal change, of - he dares say it so I will, too - character, as we face the specter of accelerating climate change.

He concludes, of course, by suggesting everybody plant a garden. It's about using solar power directly, cutting the food miles close to zero, recycling kitchen waste, amusing yourself rather than being dependent on electronic diversions, cutting down on time at the gym - and better tasting food.

I got my first salad from my garden this year a few evenings ago - lettuce and radishes from the community garden, with some edible flowers - nasturtiums and chive blossoms - from my back yard. Dressed with olive oil from Oroville and the juice of half a Meyer lemon - from someone else's backyard - it was perfection. I had forgotten how good really fresh baby lettuce - as opposed to the gassed stuff at the supermarket - tastes. I planted my edible podded peas late, but they are blooming, and every grey morning means means another day they'll like before the consistent heat hits.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why don't we have one of those?

An interesting article on my BBC feed discusses a plan to make the dairy biz in Britain greener. Less water, less fossil fuel usage, less energy usage, doing a better job with waste of all kinds - with clear numerical targets.

What really caught my attention though was this: the plan came from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Why don't we have a department like that in our government, rather than having agriculture in one department, environment in another, and things affecting both all over the place?